|Supporters of cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri in Islamabad on Saturday. (AFP)
Islamabad, Aug 16: Cricketer-turned politician Imran Khan and Canada-based populist cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri have arrived in Islamabad leading thousands of supporters as part of their march on the capital to demand resignation of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and call fresh elections in the country.
The duo, which has been in touch with each other through emissaries, arrived early Saturday morning separately leading their marchers amid heavy downpour after the local authorities gave permission to them to hold the rally and allocated separate spaces for sit-ins.
Imran and Qadri say the 2013 parliamentary election that brought Pakistan Muslim League (N) of Nawaz Sharif into power were massively rigged.
Imran, who heads Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) embarked on his journey from Lahore on the morning of August 14, claiming that he will bring a million march to Islamabad. Qadri, who is normally based in Canada and arrived in Pakistan in June also claimed he would lead hundreds of thousands of people as part of his "revolution march".
While it is difficult to judge exact number of people, independent observers and local police officials say the people on both sides of the march are far below 100,000.
Senior leader of Mutahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) Haider Abbas Rizvi said workers of PTI are disappointed over leadership's failure to mobilize a big crowd .
Local private TV channels ridiculed Khan for leaving the supporters after his address on early Saturday morning. Geo TV said the former cricket hero left for his nearby home in Bani Gala town leaving his workers behind in heavy rain. "Khan sahib should not have left and stayed back with his supporters...this is how a leader looks like", a PTI worker said.
Khan, whose party launched a protest campaign against what it called massive rigging in the election in May this year, took a complete u-turn calling for resignation of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and fresh elections in the country despite announcement by the latter to set up a judicial commission comprising three senior judges of the Supreme Court to look into allegations of rigging.
Major political parties including late Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan Peoples Party(PPP), Pashtun nationalist Awami National Party(ANP) and Jamat-e-Islami (JI)warned the PTI of serious consequences of such a march for democracy and feared military intervention in the country, which has been ruled by the army for half of its existence since its creation in 1947.
Senior PPP leaders and opposition leader in the National Assembly Syed Khursheed Shah repeatedly said they will not allow the democracy to be derailed nor would they support demand for Prime Minister's resignation.
Senior leader of Jamat-e-Islami, Liaqat Baluch said any wrong step by protesting parties will send the entire system packing.
Chief of his own faction of Pakistan Peoples Party (Sherpao) and former interior minister Aftab Ahmad Khan Sherpao said the government should no focus on ways to bring PTI and PAT to negotiating table because they have registered their protest but they should not be allowed to hold the entire system hostage.
JI chief Siraj-e-ul-Haq, who held series of meetings with Khan and Sharif to avert the march, told in Lahore on Saturday that the electoral reforms are being demanded by all political parties to avert chances of rigging in the election in future. "However, we should refrain from taking any step that may cause harm to democracy."
Qadri, who heads Pakistan Awami Tehreek(PAT) and led a similar anti-corruption march on Islamabad in January last year with over 50,000 supporters turned against PML(N) government after over dozens of his party workers were killed in clashes with the police in June. The government also did not allow Qadri's Emirates airline flight to land at Islamabad and diverted it to Lahore which also added fuel to the fire, making the fire-brand cleric extremely angry with the rulers.
Qadri repeatedly vowed to bring down what he called the corrupt government through a peaceful revolution. "Our revolution march is peaceful" he said Saturday while criticizing the government for failure of its external and internal policies and patronizing corruption.
Addressing his supporters, Imran Khan announced Saturday he will not end the protest until Sharif resigned and announce fresh elections.
"Nawaz Sharif should not be scared of holding fresh elections if he won the May 2013 polls with people's support. Why is he scared. We won't accept rigged elections," he added.
Imran Khan said that he will not leave until true freedom is achieved for the people of Pakistan.